Capt. Jeffrey Boetto, Evanston Fire Dept.
As the funeral home line snaked around the filled memorial room, through two sets of doors, wrapping around the hallway and spilling out to the front door, I began to prepare for another fire department walk through. This time it was for a 43 year old Brother from Lincolnshire-Riverwoods F.P.D. Lt. James Carney. A husband and father of two beautiful children age 7 & 9, robbed of their loved one right before Christmas.
The line to honor Brother Carney was filled with friends, family, politicians, fire and police, all waiting to give their sympathies to the Carney Family. I overheard a conversation between a firefighter and police officer, where the police officer commented, “You guys do funerals so much better than us cops do.” Proceeded by the usual banter from the firemen, “Come on, we do everything better than you guys!” It’s what we do; break the silence of tragedy with comedy.
That brief conversation struck me, as I know our Brothers & Sisters in Blue do a fine job honoring their fallen. However, they do it far less often than we do. Their enemies are visible for the most part. Their bullet proof vests and training are usually able to protect them from the bad guys. Seat belts help save lives during car chases gone bad most times. They seem to need to plan far fewer funerals than we do on the fire side.
Brother Carney succumbed to fire related cancer, as so many have lost their lives to in the fire service. The International Association of Firefighters says cancer is now the leading cause of death among firefighters. I lost my very good friend Evanston Captain Ronald Shulga to cancer earlier this year. There are a couple of more Brother’s that are facing a very difficult battle as I type this here in Illinois, and I’m sure across the country.
Unlike the flames we see that we can fight with water, this enemy keeps killing our Brother’s and Sister’s and we can’t see it to fight it with conventional weapons like hoses, water, foam, etc. It lurks in our unwashed gear, our helmet padding, and our stations without plymovent on starting apparatus. Even the innocent training fires we set with pallets are loaded with the silent killer carcinogens.
We are getting better in the fire service about monitoring air quality after fires are put out. We have gear extractors at most stations to wash our gear immediately after fires. Departments are spending the very few dollars they have to hopefully buy extra gear so firefighters can wash their gear and prevent these carcinogens from seeping into their skin during the next call after a fire. We are beginning to shower after fires, have face wipes in the rigs to wipe off excess soot from our faces after a fire.
The days of the soot stained faces, not wearing masks during firefighting and especially during overhaul are coming to an end in many places. Leaving gear dirty so that you had the badge of honor after a good fire is becoming less of a cool thing. Our younger fire fighters are taking notice that we are doing more funerals than ever before. I hope that these funerals are a wake-up call to many that we need to change our habits so that we can be there for our families into our retirement. I hope that they are a wake-up call to cities to invest in the proper safety measures to keep our firefighters safe from cancer causing carcinogens.
We can’t wrap ourselves in bubble wrap. Firefighting is a dangerous profession; no one is disputing that fact. We can take measures to increase our chances of making it into retirement, however. Keep your face piece on during overhaul. Make sure you grab a 4-gas meter and check your air quality during overhaul. Wash your gear after every fire, and rinse out the helmet padding to prevent skin cancer on your head. Keep a spare Nomex hood, and wash it once a week. Clean up after fires, and if they don’t buy you face wash, keep baby wipes on your rigs to wipe off excess soot. Check your bodies with self-exams and follow up with your dermatologist and family doctors annually. Keep yourself ready to battle the enemy you can see as well as the silent killer that you may not see coming! Stay safe, stay smart and protect yourself from all dangers visible